The North Korea Deal

Some Presidents and diplomats think that the panoply of summit meetings distract from the hard negotiations that take place there and so they arrange for extended stays at isolated spots so that participants can dig into details and come to compromises. Carter used Camp David, Clinton also used Camp David, and Roger Holbrooke used Dayton Air Force Base. Carter and Holbrooke were successful and Clinton was not. Churchill, for his part, regarded panoply as an essential part of what was to be undertaken. Famously, he arranged for the hymns at the Anglican Church service he held on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland in 1940 to issue their proclamation of the Four Freedoms to be the same hymns that FDR might have heard at Groton when he went to school there. The purpose was to build a sense of solidarity between the two nations by showing their intimate connections with one another. Churchill fills many pages of his memoir about World War II with the toasts presented at international meetings. That was not just to fill space or to use whatever in the archives was available but to provide his sense that the toasts, in some complicated way, spelled out what the toasters really thought about their allies and what they really thought the alliances could accomplish. Trump is different or, to modify Marx, anything serious shows up sooner or later as farce. Trump likes the panoply for its own sake because he thinks that is the substance of any agreement, and so he has a win-win situation in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un in that whether he walked away from it saying it had failed or, as he hoped, walked away from it proclaiming it a great victory, which he did, it would play well in America with his base and beyond, Democrats not knowing what to say to an agreement without substance, not that it mattered, in that Trump seemed confused about whether the final document did or did not refer to verification of nuclear disarmament, because he knew that denuclearization was not at the heart of the agreement, which was, rather, that the United States would normalize relations with North Korea, welcome it into the world community, never mind its nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses. And that was a very good deal indeed, no matter that critics are caught flat footed wondering what North Korea gave up in the immediate or near future in exchange for being welcomed into the world community and having some of its own security needs addressed, such as the elimination of joint US-ROK military exercises.

The gist of American policy towards North Korea for generations now had been granting favors of economic aid only after steps towards denuclearization are agreed to, carried out, and verified. Critics of the other party, whichever one that was, have carped about the Administration not being tough enough. That is certainly what Trump did when he criticized the Iran Treaty for not being comprehensive enough to cover missiles or to get Iran to tone down its generally aggressive foreign policy. But Trump shows that the hobgoblin of inconsistency does not trouble little as well as great minds. He went straight for the jugular. He was going to give away the store up front in exchange for a mere promise that issues of nuclear proliferation would be worked out over time, which just means the North Koreans can stall and stall while Trump gets what he wants, which in his real estate developer’s mind, means building condos on North Korea’s beaches. And that, I suggest, is not such a bad goal. Nothing is more likely to open up North Korean society than Hilton hotels on the beaches and McDonalds all over Pyongyang. That is in fact what Liberals were saying in defense of Obama opening Cuba to more trade. Human rights reforms will come later, after diplomatic relations make for more tourist and other economic trade lead to an improved and more free market economy. Just the same logic that was fruitlessly pursued when billions of dollars in Western investment were offered to Gaza so that it could build a resilient economy, Hamas turning that down because they prefer permanent war with Israel. Hamas will not give up on its principles but North Korea just might if the carrot dangling before it is rich enough, too big to resist.

So Trump gave up on talking tough, as if it didn’t matter that Kim would keep his nuclear missiles for quite a while. Why were previous American regimes so insistent on denuclearization anyway? The main deterrent on Korean nuclear weapons is the traditional one of mutually assured destruction, and that operates without any treaty at all, except perhaps for a hot line arrangement so that there are no mistaken launches, and that seems to work pretty well between Moscow and Washington, whatever are the ups and downs of the Russia-United States conflict. Nobody wants to use nuclear weapons because that means the end of them as a nation, no question about it. It seems risky to ue the last line of defense as the only line of defense but it has worked, mostly with poison gas and bacteriological warfare and also seems to hold more or less with cyber warfare in that neither the United States nor Russia nor China know quite what to expect if they unleash their cyberwar capabilities upon their adversaries, either whether their own attacks or the responses would be devastating.

So give Trump credit for having thought through the North Korean problem freshly, though that phrase “thinking freshly” is only a metaphor for whatever does go in in Trump’s brain. Think instead of him having turned a corner towards what is a much better policy than was pursued in the past. And the Democrats need not worry about the impact on future elections, which are never won on foreign policy grounds. George H. W. Bush thought he could win reelection because of his victory in the Persian Gulf War, but that didn’t happen, and George W. Bush was reelected despite the fact that the Iraq War had turned into a debacle. FDR was re-elected in 1940 even though the American people, at that point, wanted to stay out of the European War. This November, the election will be a referendum on Trump’s character, and we will have to see how the American people feel about that, whether a lot of them are still enchanted by his gruffness or no longer find it charming.